I was a rigrat until the day I got an office job. But I continued to clamber up every ship’s rig that I could, which is how I ended up aloft on the Star of India last week. It was a sunny day without much breeze, and the San Diego sky was almost as blue as the water. The Maritime Museum of San Diego had generously offered to take a knot of sailors aloft during the Festival of Sail.
First came the physical test, to demonstrate that we had the strength and ability to hold fast in the rigging. Next, we tugged on harnesses and listened to a safety briefing. Then, one by one, we pulled ourselves up onto a rail as high off the deck as I am tall, swung out over the water to grasp the lower shrouds, and began to climb.
At 278’ sparred length, the Star of India is the largest tall ship I’ve been on, and the components of her rig are as large as any I’ve seen. Traditionally rigged and iron-hulled, she is reminiscent of an era in which iron was becoming more prevalent in shipbuilding, and her rig reflects this juxtaposition of “old” and “new” materials. With a tight grip and sure footing, I scampered up the served and tarred starboard shrouds after a Star of India volunteer and a recently-acquainted friend from Pilgrim. Just below the futtocks, I paused, and stretched one leg outwards until my toes were resting on the parrel, an iron collar that attaches the mast to the yard. With a thrust of momentum, I drew my body across a gap between the shrouds and the main yard, forty feet above the wooden deck, and balanced myself against the cold metal of the course. With a call of “Laying on Starboard!”, I slid off the parrel and planted the arches of my Converse on the footropes. I was still free-climbing, clasping the solid jackstay as I inched my way sideways along the seventy-two foot long yard. But moments later, as our little group reached the end of the yard, I had a chance to clip in with my harness and pause to survey the view.
The water was below me, perhaps sixty feet beneath my feet. Within the bay, the water was calm, and the only waves that rocked our ship came from the wakes of passing vessels. On the deck, curious visitors the size of my thumb gazed skyward at us in the rigging. A crew member had gathered several children and adults and was assisting them in hauling lines to set sails. Towards shore, the festival grounds were packed. A line of visitors waited in line to get their souvenir passports stamped with images of the vessels they’d seen. Another crowd of festival-goers had converged on the vendor tents, eager for food and drink in the hot sun. Up on the windward yard, I could no longer smell the kettle corn that had been so enticing at ground level. But it was pleasant to simply be aloft again, for the first time in nearly a year, to swing my feet on the footropes and feel the wind in my hair.